P.T.F. Before Crucifixion
Opinion is divided between us, the Nigerian public, and our beloved President-elect on the fate of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF). On the one hand, he has repeatedly made clear his intent to scrap the organization. He condemned it as unconstitutional. So, since he is returning as a messiah, committed to the eradication of all evils, PTF, as a “constitutional evil”, must not be exempted. On the other hand, whatever the validity of the ‘constitutionality’ argument of the president-elect, we insist that the organization has recorded enough tangible results to save it from such brutal fate. Nevertheless, he remains adamant. It therefore seems that the line is once more drawn for the ‘mother of all battles’ between the sinful them and the holy us.
Humor aside, Obasanjo has not been alone in his opposition to the PTF. We offer an insight to the nature of the various opposition camps. This, should he be willing to give facts the relevance they deserve. In a one-man-show court, such an insight will be an important testimony, especially if he was away in prison when the “unconstitutional crime” of establishing PTF was committed. We also seize the opportunity of the surrounding ‘democratic’ atmosphere to offer some advise on what our ‘constitutionally’ elected president and the new champion of the Nigerian constitution will need to consider before passing a verdict, if he has not done so yet. Nonetheless, we know that when the chips are down, all arguments about constitutionality may be irrelevant. As a Third World leader and once on the throne, Obasanjo has enough ‘constitutional’ power at his disposal to make it unnecessary for him to call a faithful dog a bad name before hanging it.
The first trouble PTF had was associated with what I call the ‘cash syndrome’. Virtually all ministers, governors and other cronies of the Abacha regime were opposed to PTF as a service rendering organization. In administrative parlance, they resented the executive powers given the organization in its enabling decree. They wanted it only to finance their shopping list. From our past experience, this could have meant a squander that would never be accounted for.
Ministries to date complain that they have been made redundant by PTF. At early stages, there were disagreements between the organization and many state administrators. Some rejected drugs and other supplies delivered to their states. Even civil servants in many states initially refused to co-operate with PTF consultants on deliveries. The most formidable in resistance was the last minister of FCT, Jerimier Useni. He declined PTF services, and insisted on ‘cash only’ so much so that the President then had to intervene on his side. PTF management was thus directed to release funds to the minister without any condition on utilization or accountability. What happened to those funds is anybody’s guess.
What saved PTF from an early abortion due to this attitude of administrators and ministers was the fortitude of the then Head of State. It was a contradiction that the man who we now equate with plunder could conceive and deliver a wealthy organization like PTF to the hands of a prudent person like General Buhari. The PTF Chairman, as we know him, insisted in getting the PTF enabling decree to unequivocally acknowledge its full autonomy under the executive powers of its Chairman. This was necessary, in his view, to shield it from the plunder of those days.
At debut also was the opposition to its watertight methodology. Forgetful of the prudent personality of its Chairman, some Nigerians expected to see PTF run in a fashion similar to that of Presidential Task Forces under the Babangida regime, in particular the Directorate for Food and Rural Infrastructure (DFFRI). Some civil servants, regarding themselves as part of our dilapidated infrastructure, were ‘giraffing’ out through the windows of the Federal Secretariat, expecting a posting to the organization that will enable them some form of ‘rehabilitation’. The public was also not left behind in the stampede for appointment. Immediately he was appointed, the Chairman started receiving mails and incessant calls from such Nigerians suggesting a name for this or that position. Only one group of consultants was lucky to hit the nail on the head. They alone discussed the technicalities of the job in the presentation.
So people received the shocking news that PTF will employ the services of consultants and employ, for administrative purposes, only a few management staff. The project consultants (Afri-Projects Consortium, or APC as they are now popularly known) submitted their proposal on the structure of the organization and its modus operand. The hopes of many interested parties, both within and outside the organization, were dashed. These parties cried foul. Some were so loud as to be heard as far as the United Kingdom. I recall lucidly the effort of one of the PTF Board members to reject this arrangement claiming that contracts could be awarded without much formality; that the money be shared among board members who should be given executive powers to formulate and execute projects in their zones. He aired some remarks on the BBC that were, sad to mention, very uncharacteristic of a statesman and of his position as a one time member in the Murtala regime. The comments were heavily loaded with malice and went a long way to erode his credibility. It was a blessing that he opted to drop out early in the journey.
A section of the media was also opposed to the PTF. The southern media, in their characteristic tribal rhetoric, has often condemned it as a northern OMPADEC. It was just unfair because nothing could be farther from the truth. A lot of effort by PTF goes to maintain an equitable distribution of projects among different geographical entities. What I still find hard to configure is the motive behind this cheap propaganda. Was it part of a blind anti-Abacha campaign or was it a manifestation of their traditional ethno-centric stereotype?
Also, I cannot say for sure what public relations damage Babangida might be doing to the PTF. But I once heard the General being hypercritical of Buhari’s position as its chairman. It will not be surprising therefore if he has voiced a similar disapproval of the entire organization, at least in private. Being a human being, there could also be this envy that DFFRI was a woeful failure, not so much a success like PTF. It is important to postulate this hypothesis because the political group in whose hand the fate of PTF lies is largely made up of either obedient lieutenants of Babangida or those detained during the Buhari-Idiagbon regime and later released Scott-free by him with their share of the booty in hand.
The level of freedom of practice accorded APC in their terms of reference as project consultants has made them victims of human weakness from some colleagues in the engineering profession. I wished it was not glaring enough to catch APC’s attention. Unfortunately it did and much to its detriment. Such natural reactions made both its directors and staff paranoid of, or rather hysteric about criticisms of whatever form and source.
But to be fair to APC, when given the chance to design the modalities of PTF operation, it did not exclude other consultants from benefiting both professionally and financially. History will attest to its fairness in this respect. In no other program were consultants from various fields of specialization and from various parts of the country given opportunity to serve this country and be rewarded to the letter as in PTF. We are witnesses to how foreigners are promoted on major projects in this country over their Nigerian counterparts. We are also witnesses to how government agencies recklessly slash the fees of professionals. On many occasions, they are not paid at all. Even in sectors without gazetted fee schedule like in Agriculture, their consultants were put on the same scale with that of engineers. APC might have even gone a step further along this path of justice, but the human soul, including mine, is too great to satiate.
I do not believe in that PTF is perfect. As human beings, we all carry a bunch of shortcomings that we continuously try to hold tight under our armpits. But as we bend down, stretching open our hands to undertake a task, one or two of such shortcomings will slip out and drop within the sight of a critical observer. We always wish he never saw them. They are, however, inevitable given our limited foresights and the conflicting emotions that sometimes overrule our reason. For example, I sometimes contemplate if rationalizing the project management would reduce the ‘burden’ on APC and hasten the implementation of some sectors still lagging. However, no blame should be apportioned in this respect because the enormity of PTF task, I believe, only became evident after its takeoff. This not withstanding, I respect the stand of its board in resisting the temptation of introducing new hands midway. After all, as an intervention organ, there may not be much time. Moreover, its composition was too elderly to undertake such a risk. Still, I very much feel that this area of re-engineering, once applied with the sense and caution it deserves, could yield considerable dividends for any incoming Board.
The IMF and World Bank are also against the PTF. But since the past regime went on a collusion course with the entire West, not much was heard of it thereafter. These, and perhaps many others, were the undercurrents behind the opposition to PTF. I trust Mr. President-elect will be wise enough once in power to give reason a chance, not simply giving in to selfish or vindictive inclinations.
Having said enough about the forces against PTF lets now comment about its achievements, the thrust of our position. We will be brief since, here, any objective Nigerian could be an authority. He must have been its beneficiary in one way or another: through its programs on roads, water, health and so on. Mr. President-elect was away in prison throughout this time.
The success of PTF based on its founding objectives will remain exemplary. A BBC reporter once cornered the board member who dropped out early in the journey. He conceded the fact that PTF is doing a good job everywhere. He only complained on the cost. Let’s take him on that. The roads sector is an example. I believe some board members also initially found it difficult to comprehend estimate figures in nine zeros. However, such estimates were inevitable given the quality of the consultants and job execution, the reputation of the contractors, the degree of dilapidation, the distances as well as the geographical spread of the jobs, not to mention the miserable value of our currency. When the rehabilitation commenced, the success attained allayed such fears. Besides, the organization has insisted that these figures are lower than those of the Federal Ministry of Works and the World Bank for the same quality of execution. After all, what makes the difference to Nigerians this time, unlike during DFFRI, was that there are no fraud claims and counter-claims on executed job, no false signboards or plagiarism. The work is really done and the results are tangible enough to the verification of all.
I wish the present PTF team will publish a list of its achievement in every sector or state of the Federation to bring home its record performance, lessening the burden on providence as it sits one day to pass its judgement in absentia.
Now I turn to address the President-elect who must one day sit down to decide finally on the fate of PTF and other "criminally unconstitutional" organizations like FSP, NDLEA, FRSC, FEAP, etc.
Build, do not destroy
I believe that in the past twenty years since your celebrated exit from Dodan Barracks, you have acquired additional wisdom from your role in international diplomacy. You must have discovered that the cornerstone of development is building not destruction. Again being an engineer yourself, you already know that scientific and technological progress is built on a rational evaluation of past practice and achievements. Each theory is accorded the weight it deserves on an egalitarian balance of rationality.
You must not forget that you recently underwent a mutation from a retired military officer to a democrat. I hope it is skin-deep. When you blatantly denied the constitutionality of the PTF, it quickly reminded me of your military credentials. In democracy however, the fate of a public policy is predicated not on such technical adjectives like constitutionality but on the weight it carries on the balance of public opinion. Your mind, I believe, is too humble to reject the following two illustrations.
One, the greatest existing democracy, the United State of America, recently put aside the constitutional implication of perjury and obstruction of justice in the scandal involving its incumbent president. The polls overwhelmingly believed that he lied under oath and took steps to cover it, but they were ready to forgive him because of his record performance in office. Thus the senate, presided upon by the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, simply followed suit in its impeachment verdict. In practical terms therefore, once in a blue moon, justice is administered a small non-lethal dosage of ‘cocaine’ to enable the politicians align with the popular demands of the electorate.
Two, without crossing the Atlantic, and trust me this is neither intended to embarrass nor intimidate you, let’s discuss briefly the constitutionality of your position. As a democrat, I believe you will concede that rigging an election is the most unconstitutional act against democracy. However, your election was massively rigged as attested not only by Nigerians that one may be tempted to dismiss as biased but also by representatives of the club you so much cherish to belong, the ‘International Community’. In fact, when your friend Carter left without congratulating you or issuing any categorical statement supporting the fairness of the election, I kept my fingers crossed. I was afraid that once he returns to Washington he will denounce its credibility. But the leaders of the International Community, knowing where its interest lies and knowing the game called ‘democracy’, suppressed the truth and congratulated you. They are simply telling you that terms like ‘democracy’ and ‘constitution’ are not revelations. Therefore, if you can tolerate an election malpractice, it beats me hollow to configure why you, as a democrat, are bent on scrapping PTF irrespective of public opinion.
This leads us to mention the stabilizing instrument in any democracy, the principle of consultation. I hope, this time as a democrat, you will fully utilize it. Give some thoughts to the essentiality or otherwise of PTF, NDLEA, etc. Then discuss it with other people and pass try to follow due process of law in scrapping them if you are convinced on the wisdom of doing so. I hope the constitutional yardstick that will be used for various organizations will be the same as that of the PTF, not shorter.
For obvious reasons, General Buhari has repeatedly asserted his decision to leave PTF at the end of this regime. We thank this gentleman for allowing this nation benefit from his character as an honest patriot. The difference in moral rectitude between him and his successor must not be wide. Otherwise, nothing will be achieved. He may not be under any obligation to inherit the structure of the organization as it is now, rather he should be free to re-engineer areas he finds necessary for a greater efficiency. The laborious documentation some people are complaining about is inevitable once transparency is intended. Above all, management engineering has its formalities that cannot just be abandoned easily.
Old habits die hard
I have nothing against you sharing the cake of presidential expedience with your ministers. However, we must not forget that PTF came about as a result of thick stratum of distrusts that accumulated over the years between them and the presidency. The road to my village for example, which is a Federal highway, was not for once been rehabilitated since you constructed it twenty years ago. Now it is smooth driving, thanks to PTF. How many constitutions did we have since or where has been the Federal Ministry in charge?
Do not be too naïve to suppose that you can redeem our ministries overnight. Give each of them a billion-naira project first and see whether they have genuinely repented. Remember, you are choosing a cabinet with a majority from a party whose political elite, sorry to hear this sir, is composed largely of people responsible for the present bad state of affairs.
I do not envy you in your position come May 29. You will soon discover how we have changed dramatically and became materially stereotyped. Your guts may surprise me. Sincerely, I wished you had returned as a conductor to a better orchestra. The melody of your music would have certainly sounded sweeter. Good luck.
5 March 1999